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Impact of the French and American Revolutions

The French Revolution had important consequences for every major country in Europe. What was particularly remarkable about the impact of the French Revolution on Britain was its profound and abiding influence on the ideological climate and its impact on the development of politics inside and outside parliament.

Throughout Britain the French Revolution was the most important subject of debate in literary, philosophical and political circles. Most of those who took an interest in what was happening across the Channel responded in either a highly positive or a profoundly negative fashion. This increasingly sharp division of opinion provided a major stimulus to extra-parliamentary reformers while also encouraging the growth of popular loyalism, and re-shaped the political fortunes of the two major groups in parliament, led by William Pitt the Younger and Charles James Fox respectively. British opinion thus became polarized between those who thought French principles and actions should set an example to the British people and those who believed that they should oppose everything the French Revolution was seeking to achieve.

The dramatic first months of the French Revolution inspired a positive reaction among men of liberal views both inside and outside parliament. To such men as Charles James Fox, Richard Price and Robert Southey the old world seemed to be passing a way and the regeneration of all human institutions seemed to be at hand. France was seen to be throwing off the shackles of tyranny and leading mankind to a more rational age when liberty, equality and fraternity would improve the human condition forever. Many veteran reformers, who had been campaigning for political change since the 1760s, hailed the outbreak of revolution in a country long regarded as the prime example of absolute monarchy and were galvanized into a renewed debate on what reforms needed to be achieved. By the early 1790s, inspired by French notions on the rights of man, most British campaigners for parliamentary reform had adopted the demand for universal manhood suffrage and for a full democratization of the electoral system. There was widespread agreement that the right to vote should be attached to the person and not to the property of man. To deny any man the franchise was to cast a slur on his moral character and to assert that he was less than a man. The possession of wealth was no proof of moral worth or civic virtue, and nor was poverty any evidence of the lack of these qualities.

In the past many British reformers had maintained that their demand for an extension of the franchise was based on a traditional right based on England’s ancient constitution. Many of the leading radical theorists of the early 1790s however abandoned an appeal to history and stressed instead the natural and inalienable rights of all men. Thomas Paine, for example, deliberately abandoned any appeal to the past and insisted that each age had the right to establish any political system which would fit its own needs. The present age must be free to reject the tyranny of the past and to inaugurate a new age of liberty. All men must be allowed their natural and inalienable rights to life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness. The authority of those in power must be limited and must be subject to the sovereignty of the people. A written constitution must place limits on the executive and the legislature, and must clearly set out the civil rights of all subjects. Thomas Paine would have gone further than most parliamentary reformers to democratize the elections to the House of Commons. He condemned all hereditary honours, titles and privileges. He saw no justification for a monarchy or an aristocracy and clearly favoured a democratic republic. Few other British reformers wanted to go as far as this and only a handful (and Paine was not among them) campaigned for votes for women. On the other hand, a few reformers had become interested in a range of social and economic reforms. Quite a number of reformers favoured educational reforms, changes in the legal system, the abolition of church tithes and the repeal of the game laws. Paine argued for a reduction in taxes on the poor and for a property tax on the rich which would fund such social welfare reforms as child allowances, maternity grants and old age pensions. Thomas Spence went further still and wanted to abolish private property and to put all land and natural resources in each parish under the control of and for the benefit of every man, woman and child living in it.

The consequences for the political and propertied elite of reforms such as these, and the alarming example set by the French revolutionaries who used violence and terror to achieve the changes which they desired, stimulated a profound conservative reaction in Britain. Conservative theorists such as Edmund Burke denounced the radical concept of natural rights, all abstract general principles and reforms based on speculative theories as the sure and certain road to political upheaval and social anarchy. They insisted that human beings were so unequal in body, mind, talents and fortune that they could not lay claim to an equal share of political power. Conservative propaganda aimed at a mass readership used more pragmatic arguments than these and adopted simple, direct language and a more impassioned tone. This propaganda sought to convince the middling and lower orders of Britain that French principles and the ideas of British radicals posed a terrible threat to everything that they held most dear. British subjects were warned that they had nothing to gain and everything to lose if they were seduced by radical principles. The French revolutionaries were condemned for rejecting Gods laws and arrogantly putting their trust in human reason. Whereas the British people were secure in their lives, liberty, property and religion, the French were experiencing terror, social anarchy and military dictatorship. This virulent propaganda set out to paint the French in the blackest colours and to accuse them of spreading terror, oppression and desolation across Europe. To restrain them, the British people must be prepared to make enormous sacrifices and to wage a veritable crusade against the French Revolution.

To disseminate their radical ideas far and wide British reformers established dozens of new political societies in most of the urban centres. By far the most important of these was the London Corresponding Society, founded by Thomas Hardy, a humble shoemaker, in January 1792. Branches soon spread across the capital and 3000 or more members were recruited, though it was never a mass society and it failed to attract large numbers of the poor. A radical society in Sheffield attracted nearly as many members, but most radical clubs were much smaller. Nearly all of them were formed by the commercial and professional middle classes and by skilled craftsmen, but their propaganda, public meetings and their petitioning campaigns did raise the political consciousness of large numbers of people.

In its determination to resist the spread of French principles the British government used its legislative and judicial powers to suppress radical activity. Faced with government repression, most radicals did not know how to respond. The majority lost heart or at least moderated their conduct. As a last desperate resort a minority turned to conspiracy and violence as the only means of achieving their political objectives. By the late 1790s a militant remnant of the British radical movement had assumed the conspiratorial, subversive and violent character that the majority had always repudiated. Groups of United Englishmen were formed in London, Lancashire and West Yorkshire, while bands of United Scotsmen appeared in central Scotland. Arms were gathered and secret drilling took place, but these groups lacked numbers, cohesion and a clear strategy. Without French support they had little prospect of success and most of their leaders were arrested in 1798.

In the years after 1789 parliamentary politics in Britain were marked by a rallying behind William Pitt’s government of the vast majority of the propertied elite. Pitt’s determination to oppose both revolution abroad and radical change at home was very popular with the propertied classes represented in parliament and dominant in most parliamentary constituencies. There was widespread backing for his repressive policies which destroyed the radical movement as an effective force.

While events in France increased the parliamentary majority of Pitt’s party of government in the years after 1789, they also played a major role in dividing the parliamentary opposition led by Charles James Fox and condemning it to nearly forty years in the political wilderness. Frequently outmanoeuvred by Pitt, the opposition suffered from divided counsels and erratic judgement and had tied itself closely to the unpopular and irresponsible Prince of Wales. The internal problems facing them, however, were greatly exacerbated by their inability to unite in their response to the French Revolution and the French war. This parliamentary opposition disintegrated between 1792 and 1794 largely because Burke, Portland and other conservative members could no longer accept the Foxite view that French revolutionaries and domestic radicals posed little threat to the political and social order within Britain. The anxiety created by prolonged war proved even more alarming than the political changes within France and it reduced even further the support for the Foxites both within parliament and among the political elite as a whole.

The Foxite view of the French Revolution was dominated by British assumptions and expectations. They mistakenly believed that the French were about to establish a constitutional monarchy on the British model. Even when the French revolutionaries turned to violence, the Foxites claimed that it was the absolutist powers of Europe, aided and abetted by the reactionary Pitt, who were more to blame than the French for the descent into anarchy, terror and dictatorship. The war against France was condemned as unjust and unnecessary. Such attitudes as these, sustained in the teeth of the evidence, ensured that the Foxites would never command a majority among the political elite so long as the French threat remained. At the same time the Foxites failed to enlist the enthusiastic support of radicals and reformers outside parliament because their commitment to parliamentary reform was at best ambivalent and almost invariably lukewarm. They failed to find and extend the middle ground in an age when political opinion was sharply polarized by events in France. Although the Foxites eloquently argued the case for peace and bravely tried to stem the tide of reaction, their efforts were condemned by most of the political elite as defeatist and unpatriotic and were rejected by the radicals as half-hearted and insincere.

In their different responses to the French Revolution and the French war the Pittites and the Foxites were divided more than any other recent governing party and opposition by a yawning political and ideological gulf. Previously divided mainly on the question of the royal prerogative, the two groups now increasingly differed over their attitudes to domestic reform, the French Revolution and the issues of war and peace. These major ideological differences propelled both groups towards greater party organization. Although the Younger Pitt always regarded himself as an independent Whig, his critics increasingly applied the label Tory to his administration because it defended the royal prerogative, supported the privileges of the Church of England, cultivated patriotic sentiment in the nation at large, encouraged militant loyalism, and suppressed radical dissent. As the party which remained critical of royal power, advocated religious toleration, supported a moderate extension of civil liberties and opposed reaction at home, the Foxites succeeded in retaining the old Whig label for themselves.

Britain and the American Revolution

The American Revolution can be regarded as a civil war in which the British people on both sides of the Atlantic disputed about their constitutional interpretations of the past and over their constitutional visions for the future. The people in America and the people in Britain were divided internally on the wisdom of the political arguments advanced by American patriots and British imperialists. In the colonies, there were many Americans who remained loyal to the British empire and the British constitution. In Britain there were many who sympathized with the American patriots and who protested against the policies put forward by the British government in the 1760s and 1770s. Throughout the American Revolution successive British governments secured comfortable majorities to support their imperialist policies towards the American colonies. In recent years however historians have shown that large numbers of people in Britain opposed the government’s American policy.

Faced with an American empire greatly increased in size by 1763 and already burdened by a huge national debt and very heavy taxes, British government ministers tried to revise its imperial machinery. It also tried to reduce the costs of empire while seeking to get the colonists to bear more – but only a part – of the burden of defending this North American empire. The colonists were asked to pay some of the costs for billeting British troops. And a new form of tax – an internal Stamp Tax imposing a duty on published papers and financial and legal documents – was introduced in 1765 in order to meet some of the costs of imperial defence. These government measures were not a conspiracy to deprive the colonies of their rights and liberties. From a British point of view they were legal decisions made by the government and enacted by parliament in order to get the Americans to pay part of the costs of their own defence.

In their opposition to the decisions taken by the British government, the American colonists challenged the right of the British government and the British parliament to pass such legislative acts. They raised the old British slogan of no taxation without consent long used by the British parliament against the British monarch and argued that they did not give their consent to British acts of parliament because they were not represented in the Westminster parliament. In response, the British government and a majority in parliament were determined to defend the constitutional principle of the sovereignty of the Westminster parliament. They were convinced that the British constitution had brought the British people of the whole empire many valuable benefits. This constitution was praised for saving Britain from the evils of absolutism and an authoritarian church. It had produced the rule of law and government by consent, the defence of property and the liberties of all subjects, and an unparalleled period of economic prosperity, military success and imperial expansion. It had, in particular, produced the essential objectives of all good government: liberty and stability under the rule of law; and a law based on the consent of the people achieved through representative institutions. These arguments persuaded a majority of the political elite to support the American policies of successive British ministries, but many in Britain were opposed to these policies and to the constitutional principles that underlay them.

There were always British critics of the government inside and outside parliament who warned that British taxes and coercive measures would alienate all the American colonies and that war would be a disaster to all British interests. Critics in parliament condemned the ministers and regarded the drift to war as fatal and ruinous. William Pitt and Edmund Burke made major speeches urging compromise with the American colonists. Outside parliament Adam Smith and Josiah Tucker, the two leading economists of the day, argued that the colonies were beneficial to Britain only because of the trade across the Atlantic. This trade would continue to exist and would continue to benefit Britain even if Britain exercised no political control over the American colonies. As independent states the former colonies would continue to want to sell their raw materials to Britain and to buy British manufactured goods. It was therefore best not to fight, but to let the American colonies go their own way towards political independence. Large numbers of middle class men in London and many provincial cities also believed that the trade links with America were much more important than any political control over the internal affairs of the colonies. These men organized petitions against the Stamp act of 1765, and helped to secure its repeal in 1766, and they did the same in opposition to the coercive acts of 1774 and in favour of compromise with the Americans in 1775-6. Thousands of British people signed these petitions, opposed government policies and urged the need for peace. In March 1776 the Common Council of the City of London condemned the war with America and even tried to block the government’s efforts to recruit men into the army and the navy.

Many British critics of the government’s American policy sympathized with arguments advanced by the American colonists. Some opposition politicians in parliament insisted that the American colonists enjoyed all the liberties of British subjects in Britain, and that included the right to be taxed only by their own colonial legislatures. Radical propagandists such as Richard Price, Joseph Priestley, John Cartwright and James Burgh frequently argued that the government of the colonies must be based on consent and they supported the principle of no taxation without representation. They were critical of attempts to impose an internal tax on the colonies and they condemned coercive measures and opposed the war with the colonies. But these men wished to retain the British empire and to keep the links between Britain and the colonies. They found it difficult however to devise a political system which would maintain the empire, preserve liberty in all parts of it, and yet not have to grant the colonists full independence. Several proposals were made to allow the colonies to elect MPs to the British House of Commons so that colonists would enjoy representation in the imperial legislature. It was soon realised that this was impractical. The colonies were too far away so that colonial MPs could not easily keep in touch with the situation back in the colonies; travel would be slow; living for months every year in London would be very expensive; and no agreement could ever be reached on how many American representatives should sit in the Westminster parliament.

Rather than force the American colonies to remain in the empire, British liberal and radical opinion had concluded by 1778 that the war should be ended and Britain should freely concede American independence. These men hoped that good human and commercial relations would be restored with the former colonies this would be more beneficial for both sides than a military victory for one side. Although they could not persuade the British government and a majority in parliament to accept American independence as early as 1778, Britain did eventually accept that the war was not worth continuing and peace was made in 1783.

The British defeat in the War of American Independence and loss of the American colonies were major disasters for Britain. Many in Europe thought Britain would rapidly decline into a second-rank power. These expectations were not realised however. The worst consequences of defeat were short-lived. Defeat produced government instability for a year or two, but William Pitt led one of the strongest governments in British history between 1784 and 1801. It was widely expected that American independence would destroy all Britain’s Atlantic trade and seriously weaken her economy. In fact, by the 1790s Britain was once more America’s greatest trading partner, buying the vast majority of Americas exports and supplying the vast majority of her imports. The British economy rapidly recovered from the war and industrial innovation very soon made Britain the leading manufacturing nation on earth and the richest power in the world. Britain lost her finest colonies in America in 1783, but she kept Canada and many islands in the West Indies and soon developed a second vast empire in India, Australia and the Far East.

The American Revolution had its most important impact within Britain on men of liberal or radical views who had sympathized with the American arguments during the 1760s and 1770s. The American crisis alerted men to the dangers posed to British liberties by the amount of political patronage controlled by the king and the extent of his influence over parliament. Slowly but surely, during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, royal patronage was cut back and the ability of the crown to influence the membership of the House of Commons was severely limited. The monarch began to play a much less significant role in politics. British failure also encouraged a major revival of radicalism. By 1780 British radicals and already proposed a series of reforms to democratize the House of Commons including votes for all adult males. It took many years to achieve these reforms but it was the American Revolution that taught British radicals what reforms to demand to make parliament accountable to the people and not just to the propertied elite. It was the American patriots who taught British radicals to demand a much more democratic franchise and to strive to increase the political influence of ordinary British subjects. They also taught British reformers how to organize political campaigns and how to achieve reforms without too much domestic upheaval. The lessons which Britain did not learn from the American Revolution was the dangers posed by the sovereignty of parliament and the advantages of a written constitution approved by the people and an extensive Bill of Rights.